From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Fine art photography, sometimes simply called art photography, refers to high-quality archival photographic prints of pictures that are created to fulfill the creative vision of an individual professional. Such prints are reproduced, usually in limited editions, in order to be sold to dealers, collectors or curators, rather than mass reproduced in advertising or magazines. Prints will sometimes, but not always, be exhibited in an art gallery.
19th Century history
Successful attempts to make self-consciously "art" photography can be traced to Victorian era practitioners such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Oscar Gustave Rejlander among others.
20th Century history
Pictorialism was a popular movement in the early years of the twentieth century, that strove to make the photograph as much like a painting as possible. It produced little that is now deemed of lasting value in the art world, and its styles and approaches are now seen as outmoded.
During the twentieth century, art photography became accepted by the English-speaking art world and the gallery system. In the USA, a small handful of curators spent their lives struggling to put it there; Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski, and Hugh Edwards.
Since the 1970s, many galleries have accepted that the best of documentary photography and photojournalism is worthy of being shown in the gallery situation alongside art photography. From around 1975 many new galleries were opened to show only photography. These too, generally, were happy to show both fine-art and documentary pictures.
Traditionally, until the late 1970s genre styles predominated; nudes, portraits, natural landscapes (exemplified by Ansel Adams). Breakthrough 'star' artists in the 1970s and 80s, such as Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe, still leant heavily on such genres, although seeing them with fresh eyes. Others investigated a snapshot aesthetic approach.
Throughout the twentieth century, there was a noticeable increase in the size of prints. Small delicate prints in thin frames are now a rarity, and hi-gloss wall-sized prints are common. There is now a tendency to dispense with a frame and glass altogether and instead to print onto blocked canvas.
Color photography is now preferred over black & white, and its validation was strongly aided by curator John Szarkowski. Historians generally point to the Szarkowski-curated William Eggleston show at MoMA in 1976 as the "breakthrough of color". In England, the early work of Gilbert & George is cited as validating color in art photography.
There is now a trend toward a careful staging and lighting of the picture, rather than hoping to "discover" it ready-made. Photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson, among others, are noted for the quality of their staged pictures.
With the advent of digital photography and Photoshop, montage art photography has once again become popular; it is notably seen in the work of artists such as John Goto and Anyes Galleani. Purely computer-generated digital art (fractals, etc) is usually clearly distinguished from fine-art photography.
No concerted attempt has been made to popularize fine art photography, beyond the limited market for book reproductions. It is generally considered that one has to have an 'educated eye' to really appreciate fine art photography. Since art photography is simply not on the agenda of schools and educationalists, the chance of developing a popular mass market remains limited. Numerous online "web magazines" have appeared since 1995, offering a new form of outlet for viewing fine art photography, but even this remain a niche and sales figures remain poor. Attempts by online art retailers to sell photography alongside prints of paintings have had mixed results, with strong sales coming only from the traditional "big names" of photography such as Ansel Adams.
According to Art Market Trends 2004 (PDF link) 7,000 photographs were sold in auction rooms in 2004, and photographs averaged a 7.6 percent annual price rise from 1994 and 2004. Around 80 percent were sold in the USA. Of course, auction sales only record a fraction of total private sales.
As printing technologies have improved since around 1980, a photographer's art prints reproduced in a finely-printed limited-edition book have now become an area of strong interest to collectors. This is because books usually have high production values, a short print run, and their limited market means they are almost never reprinted. The collector's market in photography books by individual photographers is developing rapidly.